The Boulder Trail Challenge gave seven friends the motivation, camaraderie and escape they needed during uncertain times.
By Marykay Cicio
There’s no way out but through.
Folks have been all over the map in their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, but there’s no denying one thing: we just have to get through it. My friends and I faced the early months of the lockdown resigned to upended routines. Which was OK at first. Zoom parties were a novelty, and books, Netflix or puzzles filled the spaces in between. But eventually, we were crawling out of our skin from boredom and from missing each other.
We were done with resignation. We wanted diversion and a safe way to get together, and it was Jane who found the perfect activity to get us through the pandemic: the Boulder Trails Challenge.
This challenge seemed tailor-made for a pandemic as well as for Jane, Cheryl, Susan, Lisa, Lauren, Sheryl and me—seven lock-down weary, middle-aged women. The project is Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks’ (OSMP) open-ended invitation to explore the city’s 150+ miles of official trails. The OSMP webpage has several suggestions: hike one hike a week, hike a set mileage, knock off all the mountain (or prairie) trails, visit accessible trails, bike the biking trails, hike with your pup. You get to decide and, as Jane discovered, when you finish, an OSMP ranger will award you a cool pin for your efforts.
We wanted that pin! But we also wanted to earn it, so we set a goal to hike all 174 official OSMP trails together within a year. We began on a late September 2020 morning at Doudy Draw, an easy, inviting trail so lovely in early autumn light. We met nearly every Wednesday morning thereafter, marking the seasons by trail conditions and hiking-apparel layers. We were determined to meet our goal, and in the doing of it we discovered new territory in our Boulder backyard, not to mention a few things about ourselves.
We tested the stair-stepping limits of our knees on Mount Sanitas, our stamina up to Royal Arch, and our endurance up and down (and up and down) an 8-mile, 3,000-foot trek spanning Shadow Canyon, South Boulder Peak, Bear Peak and Fern Canyon. We climbed Flagstaff Trail one snowy morning with puffs of fog cloaking our views, topping out near Realization Point in a glorious circle of sunshine with ice crystals floating all around us. On St. Patrick’s Day, a post-hole slog through knee-deep snow forced us to quit the Flatirons Vista Trail early. We retreated to the slushy trailhead parking lot where Lauren surprised us with a 5-star tailgate brunch and a shot of Baileys for our troubles! Boulder’s blessedly wet spring gave us muddy trails, but also a bounty of furry pasqueflower and sugar bowl clematis in the meadows of Goshawk Ridge and, along Left Hand Trail, a prairie set aglow with mountain snow euphorbia, a gorgeous late-summer spurge that none of us had ever seen before.
The real gift of the OSMP Challenge was discovering new (to us) trails. Most of us have lived in Boulder for decades (one of us was even born and raised here), so we were surprised by the number of trails we had never visited before. Trails such as Lion’s Lair up the west side of Sanitas; the vista-studded path and rock formations at May’s Point; the educational figure eights of Sombrero Marsh; and—wow!—the Fowler Trail that squeezes its way into Eldorado Canyon whereupon an enormous scree field and the voices of climbers scaling the rocks across the canyon meet your footfalls.
Several of us had never “bothered with” the prairie trails north and east of town, and none of us had ever taken in the unique city views from the Viewpoint Trail, a hidden gem beloved by those in west-central Boulder. Doing our Challenge helped us appreciate the interconnectedness of OSMP trails, which allows for any number of possible smaller or wider loops, flatter or steeper climbs, shorter or longer outings. Time and again we marveled at OSMP’s enduring efforts to configure, build and maintain these trails.
Hiking during a pandemic did present its challenges. Pre-vaccine, we could not carpool, we encountered crowds on popular trails and our face coverings made us all hard of hearing. With indoor diversions (movies, shopping, gyms) shut down, the trails that saw the heaviest use began showing signs of erosive, tripping-hazard damage. When we started seeing regular reports of injured hikers needing rescue, our definition of a successful hike became as much about finishing as it was about not reading one of our names in the paper the next day.
Events of real life carried on as well, pandemic be damned. One of us buried her father that fall. One of us retired from a 30-year law career. One of us sent her son out of state for an uncertain first year of college. Midwinter, one of us had a full hip replacement, while another cared for her hip-replaced husband. I even lost Tippy, my loyal companion and our unofficial mascot for dog-friendly trails, when she was taken by a sudden illness.
In the mix of all that living, two hikes are particularly memorable because of events surrounding them. The first being our brisk circuit of Dakota Ridge on the bright, icy morning of January 6, 2021, after which we all returned home to the surreal news that the nation’s capital was under siege. The other being our hike on March 24, where the gentle slope of the Joder Ranch Trail provided a landscape quiet, stark and expansive enough to hold the weight of our grief and bewilderment over the mass shooting at our Table Mesa King Soopers two days before.
We completed our Challenge on schedule with a 7-mile Mesa Trail finale hike and pinning ceremony at Chautauqua Park. All told, we hiked more than 260 miles and climbed more than 42,000 feet together, and most of us did indeed hike every inch of every official trail and access spur in Boulder’s OSMP system.
The time together was precious. We shared birthdays, books and recipes; movie and hiking boot recommendations; and worries about the political climate and climate change. We minted new family-friendly meanings for the words “nooner” (a post-hike drink) and “quickie” (a short hike), and we mourned Ruth Bader Ginsberg. We also learned that ice grippers work best when attached to your boot correctly.
Like those who picked up knitting, or the ukulele, or sourdough bread-making, it felt good to offset what the pandemic took from us by the things it gave to us. A sense of accomplishment to be sure, but more importantly, the trails and time together gave us a deeper appreciation for the things that quiet a troubled heart. In a year that assailed the entire globe with unrelenting indignities, division and suffering, those of us lucky enough to call Boulder home had access to a restorative beauty and peace many do not experience in a lifetime. While we have never taken this privilege for granted, our gratitude for Boulder’s treasured spaces has deepened immeasurably. Combined with a healthy dose of humility for the privilege we enjoy, our gratitude for nature, beauty and each other has helped us to keep our balance in an off-kilter world
For more information about the OSMP Trails Challenge, visit bouldercolorado.gov/services/osmp-trails-challenge.